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Israeli Traditions: The Shmita

In order to maintain a balanced, equitable, and healthy society, every seven years Israeli farmers and other agriculture industry workers observe the Shmita. The Shmita represents the end of a shared calendar cycle according to the bible and is a time when debts are forgiven, and the land is allowed to rest from the constant farming endured during the year.  This year is known as the Sabbath year as it occurs every seven years, aligning with Shabbat that occurs every seven days.  This cycle of allowing the fields to rest was mandated in the Torah and is still practiced by modern Israelis.  In the book of Exodus the Israelis are commanded by God to "“Plant your land and gather its produce for six years. But on the seventh let it lie fallow and it will rest". 

Jewish law prohibits farming, tilling soil, planting seeds, plowing, harvesting, and pruning during the Shmita year, but things like watering, fertilizing, and pulling weeds are allowed.  This allows farmers to observe the Shmita but not suffer from their crops dying out.  In addition to prohibiting working the land, the Shmita also prohibits the sale or purchase of Israeli farmed produce. 

The Shmita is obviously harmful to Israeli farmers who make their living off of selling their produce, so in modern years loopholes have been adopted to the Shmita law that eases the strain on modern farm workers.  In the past, Israeli land owners and farmers would sell their land temporarily to Arab residents who would take care of all of the farm work while the Jews observing the Shmita could not.  This solution was first used in the Shmita year of 1888-1889 and was later adopted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as a permanent fixture of the Shmita year.  The process of selling land to Arabs temporarily like this is known as Heter Mechira (translation: sale permit).  Certain products cannot be grown like this, for example Kosher wine must be produced by Jewish individuals, so wineries and grape fields cannot be temporarily sold to Arabs for farming. 

During the Shmita years, produce may be sold and consumed by Israelis if it comes from one of 5 sources:

  • Produce grown the previous year
  • Produce grown on land owned by non-Jewish (Arab) farmers in Israel
  • Produce grown outside of Israel
  • Produce acquired through the process of Otsar Beit Din
  • Produce grown hydroponically or in green houses

In order to get around these restrictions, the Rabbinic Councils of Israel have devised the Otsar Beit Din system. The system involves the Rabbis paying Arab farmers to pick, harvest, transport, and distribute the fruits and vegitables, but only paying them for the labor and not the physical fruit itself. 

In Jewish law the produce harvested during the Shmita year has certain requirements and rules for it's use:

  • The product can only be consumed or used for personal enjoyment
  • It cannot be bought, sold, or thrown out
  • The item must be used in it's "best" possible manner in order to get the fullest amount of use out of it
  • The item can only be stored as long as it is still naturally occuring in the wild.  For example if corn season has ended and all of the wild corn is dead, the remaining corn must be disposed of properly. 

The food grown during the Shmita cannot be thrown out or sold, so when an item has outlived it's natural life according to the rules of the Shmita, it must be disposed of and made ownerless through a process called biur.  The process of biur involves taking the produce to a public place and standing on a sidewalk or street with at least 3 witnesses.  The individual must announce their produce and wait for one of their witnesses to attempt to claim the items.  After ample time is given for the witnesses to make their claims, the items presented become ownerless and may be taken by any member of the community. 

The Shmita years since the establishment of the modern state of Israel have been :1951-52, 1958-59, 1965-66, 1972-73, 1979-80, 1986-87, 1993-94, 2000-01, and 2007-08.  In modern Israel the Shmita is practiced by mainly Orthodox Jews now, and the government is not interested in enforcing the observance of the Shmita.  In modern times the debt forgiveness aspect of the Shmita is relatively forgotten, but courts will still honor the annulment of debt if both parties agree.  Non-religious Israeli Jews seldom participate in the Shmita, and it serves as more of a symbolic tradition than a practical one in modern day. The Shmita of 2014-15 begins right after Rosh Hashanah, on September 26. 


Sources: JTA, Haaretz, The Shmita Project